The Watson Bagel Experience

by Ralph J. Chin


As far as I know, in the early sixties, the original site of Watson Bagel was four blocks in from Lyons Avenue on Clinton Place going towards Clinton Avenue in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey. It was only two blocks from my house and on the corner there was a defunct neighborhood gas station. After this empty lot there was a series of small stores and Watson had, at the time, taken over at least three of the four stores at this location and made them into a large working area on Clinton Place. It wasn’t an impressive store front from the outside but I don’t think they dealt with the public at this time; their main forte was supplying the surrounding supermarkets and restaurants with their bagel needs. Since it was a Jewish neighborhood there were plenty of customers to keep this small bakery very busy but you could walk in and buy some fresh bagels if you didn’t mind getting some flour dust on your shoes. The floors were always covered in this flour dust which, I imagine, was the result of opening a lot of fifty pound flour bags and pouring them into the mixers in the process of making the bagel dough. One of my friends worked at the bakery and gave me an informal tour of the facilities after hours.

When I first entered the Watson bakery I was greeted by a large room with a high ceiling. There were some offices to right but the building was essentially dominated by the large work area. In the middle of this room facing to the left side of the building were two huge motorized flour mixers with tables on each side of them. The mixers reminded me of the motorized cement mixers I had seen some masons use to mix the mortar they needed to repair a section of a sidewalk. I guess it was all the same principle but I was hoping the mixers Watson was using were made for the food industry! Behind the mixers and all the way to the left wall were hundreds of bags of flour stacked upon each other on the other side of an open load bearing wall. Towards the back of the room and adjacent to the ovens was a room I didn’t go into but I imagine it was where they formed the dough and had the boiling water baths which were an essential part of the bagel making process. Everything was covered in the flour dust despite the efforts of the workers to keep the place clean. I guess a great deal of dust hung suspended in the air during the working hours and then dropped to the floor when the activities stopped at night. The stone ovens, at least four of them, were made from brick and they were huge. They were much like the fancy brick pizza ovens you see in the upscale pizzerias nowadays with the workers using huge peels to usher the bagels in and out of the ovens.

The second site of Watson Bagel was closer to my house by a whole block and it was setup to serve the public. It was clean and free of the flour dust that dominated the original site but it was a much smaller store. All you could see in this second store was a long oven equipped with a motorized conveyor belt system that took the bagels through the ovens and eventually dumped them onto a table where the workers sorted them into the different bins depending upon the type of bagel it was. They had at least a dozen varieties of bagels and if you loved bagels, this was the place to be! When you opened the door, the smell of fresh baked bagels instantly assaulted your senses. In fact, I consider the doughy smell one of the top sensory experiences in my life! There were always hot bagels coming out of the ovens and sometimes I couldn’t wait until I got home. I would steal one from the bag, break it in half and pick the warm, tender bread out from the center of the bagel with my fingers on the way home before devouring the rest of the bagel. Talk about a culinary heaven on earth, this was as close to it as I would get in my life! This second store was in addition to the original site since it was considered a nuisance to have people constantly coming in and out of the original bakery to buy bagels! These sites didn’t last more than a couple years before another site opened up due to the rapid growth of the business.

When the third site was opened, the other two sites were closed, since this third store combined the previous two sites into one building. All you saw when you walked into the Watson Bagel store on Chancellor Avenue in Irvington was bins of different bagels and a counter where you paid for the bagels of your choice. A lot of the bagels were cold from sitting around too long and I never liked them although they tasted all right; I guess I was just spoiled by getting hot bagels every time I went into the old stores. The bakery was at the rear of the store and was a sight unseen by the regular walk in customer. The bulk of their business was still centered on supplying the surrounding area with their bagel needs through an evening delivery service but by now, the public sales of bagels had increased to a point where it rivaled the commercial accounts and the Chancellor Avenue store was made to serve both sources of business. Since I still had a friend who worked there, I was brought into the business on a temporary basis to deliver the bagels to the surrounding stores as a driver.

On my first night I was a passenger in the company station wagon which doubled as a deliver car while my friend showed me the details of the route he drove. I must tell you the car was loaded with dozens of individual bags of hot, fresh bagels of all types and it was unlike any drive I had ever taken from the sensory point of view. The biggest challenge for me was not to pilfer the bagel bags in the rear of the car!! We were about halfway through the route when suddenly a police siren started yelping directly behind us. Instead of slowing down my friend smiled at me as he stepped on the gas and quickly explained to me the cops chased him almost every night in an effort to get free bagels from him. In time, he decided to play a game with them and made them chase him through the streets to his next drop destination before giving up a dozen bagels! On my maiden drive he made two quick turns and another turn in an effort to shake them but they caught up to us in a shopping center where our next drop was located. They exited their police car with their lights still flashing and jokingly said “Hey guys, How’s the bagels tonight?” They were all laughing about my buddy’s quick turns to avoid them and I remember feeling very out of place because I didn’t know them.

The rest of the night was uneventful and in the following nights I found it quite a challenging to stay awake all night long and drive safely. In the process, I guess I got used to the intoxicating smell of the bagels and after a couple of weekends of this I decided it wasn’t my calling and bowed out. Besides, the pay wasn’t all that great but I still miss the amazing experience of driving down the road with a car full of hot fresh bagels to this day!


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